American director Jay Scheib was looking at monitors lined up inside the Bayreuth Festival Theater on a recent afternoon.
he was rehearsing his song New production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” It marked the opening of Wednesday’s famed Bayreuth Festival, with performers circling a large metal monolith on stage while a screen showed three-dimensional flowers floating in the blank space. The psychedelic animation will come to life for spectators watching with augmented reality glasses.
Through these glasses, Scheib said, flowers and other items appear to float inside the auditorium during performances. In line with the opera’s theme, he added, these moments are intended to give the audience a “divine vision” of “a world where wonder still exists.”
Scheib’s work is one of the most ambitious and high-profile attempts to incorporate augmented reality into opera performances. But it also put an end to months of turmoil in Bayreuth after plans to equip nearly 2,000 spectators for each performance were curtailed due to apparent financial troubles between the festival’s artistic and financial leaders. This compromise, in which only 330 attendees were offered a glass to experience the work’s characteristic flourish, angered many, fearing that internal conflicts at one of the opera’s most important events would undermine the opera’s relevance.
Founded by Wagner in 1876 as a showcase for Wagner’s work, the Bayreuth Festival draws opera fans from all over the world for a month each summer to hear some of Wagner’s repertoire, including new pieces at the beginning of each performance. A major event on the German cultural calendar, the opening is usually attended by prominent politicians, including the country’s former Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The festival is still treasured around the world for the pristine acoustics of the theater, the hilltop opera house that Wagner helped design, and for the connection with the composer. Since Wagner’s death in 1883, his family has continued to lead. His great-grandson, Katarina Wagner, took over creative leadership with his half-sister Eva Wagner Pasquier in 2008 and became sole artistic director in 2015.
In recent years, however, new leadership has added more weight to festival decision-making. In 2008, the budget was put under the control of four members of an independent board of directors representing the city of Bayreuth, the state of Bavaria, the German federal government, and an association of private donors called the Friends of Bayreuth, who now chair the board, representing external shareholders who collectively contribute about 40% of the budget.
While the funders intend not to interfere with the choices made by Bayreuth’s artistic leadership, some media outlets have argued that the decision to withhold funding for the purchase of the 2,000 glasses represents an attempt by shareholders to curb Wagner’s approach to the festival and his great-grandfather’s work.
After World War II, Bayreuth directors, including descendants of Richard Wagner, have brought a contemporary or experimental sensibility to the composer’s work. In 2013, Katharina Wagner invited Frank Castorff to rethink The Ring as an anti-capitalist epic about oil. In Valentin Schwartz’s upcoming The Ring, which came out last year, she reframed this cycle partly as an allegory about aging anxiety.
Toni Schmidt, a former high-ranking Bavarian civil servant who headed the festival’s shareholders’ committee until 2020, said the decision not to fund the glasses represented the Friends of Bayreuth’s “more conservative idea of what Wagner opera should be today” and was at odds with Katharina Wagner’s vision.
Schmidt said the mostly older members of the donor group “would like to get hold of the work they saw 50 years ago when they were younger, but it’s not art, it’s a museum.” He added that he wished the shareholder meeting was filled with representatives who “know what they’re talking about”, and said the decision not to fund Glass’ 100% was a “joke”.
German journalist and Die Welt critic Manuel Brugg said in a telephone interview that the current structure of the festival gives the Friends of Bayreuth too much power. “The organization is too old and many people joined because it would be easier to get tickets,” he said, arguing that donors should be excluded from the governing body in the future. Bavarian Minister of Arts Markus Blume said: In an article by Nordbayerischer Curier On Thursday it was announced that the state of Bavaria could take over part of the donor group’s stake in the future.
Georg von Waldenfels, chairman of the shareholders’ meeting and president of the Friends of Bayreuth, objected to Wagner’s intervention in the decision-making, saying in a telephone interview that the decision to reduce the number of glasses was “a purely artistic leadership decision”. He added that shareholders simply “sticked to the business plan.” But Wagner said the initial plan fell through “due to disagreements about funding and glasses” and the outcome was “disappointing.”
This disagreement reflects a broader debate about Wagner’s legacy, adding a new chapter to the festival’s history of public debate and liquidation. Winifred Wagner, the English-born wife of Richard’s son Siegfried, who oversaw the festival from 1930 to 1944, was a professed admirer of Adolf Hitler until his death in 1980. After World War II, the composer’s grandchildren Wieland and Wolfgang reinvented the festival as a more apolitical one.
More recently, the festival has been the subject of chatter, including long-standing rumors of a feud between Katharina Wagner and former music director Christian Thielemann, who retired in 2020. Last year, he publicly criticized her decision to replace the word “Führer” (“leader”) with “Schützer” (“guardian”) in her production of “Lohengrin,” a change made out of consideration for Bayreuth’s past associations. with Nazism.
In a telephone interview, Thielemann denied feuding with Wagner and said Bayreuth had long been plagued by gossip. “There is something about Wagner that poisons people,” he added. “He is a drunkard and a perfumer at the same time.”
Wagner’s contract is set to be renewed this fall, pending a vote by the festival’s board of directors. She said her acceptance of the offer, if offered, would depend on whether the festival’s organization changes. “We need to prepare the site for the future and it is impossible to do the work without structural changes,” she said, without elaborating.
If she leaves the festival, it will likely mean the end of the Wagner family’s creative leadership. No other relatives have publicly expressed interest in taking over.
Wagner said that given the festival’s “limited repertoire” of 10 mature works by Richard Wagner and the global competition among major theaters for his operas, an effort was needed to find innovative ways to present his great-grandfather’s works. If Bayreuth continues with its old-fashioned staging, “people will just have to watch the DVD,” she added.
The idea of incorporating augmented reality into “Parsifal” surfaced in early 2019. One of the challenges was adapting this technique, devised for viewing nearby objects in bright spaces, to large, dark theaters. Ultimately, Scheib’s team solved the problem by creating millimeter-precise laser scans of the entire auditorium.
Scheib said that key scenes will feature augmented reality, including giant floating trees and fire horses. When Parsifal innocently kills the swan, a pair of giant swans fly near the ceiling of the auditorium, spouting blood.
But this “Parsifal” can also be experienced without glasses, and the set, lighting and costume designs portray what Scheib described as “a post-human landscape in which a final group of people are trying to understand faith, forgiveness and belonging.” However, he noted that the uncertainty about the glasses was a “distraction.”
According to Scheib, the use of this technique was consistent with Wagner’s own approach to opera. “He implemented so many innovations in lighting and architecture,” he added. “Ultimately he wanted the theater to disappear completely.”